Five men have been charged with murder following a deadly explosion at an illegal honey oil lab in September that killed a man they were working with, authorities announced Thursday.
The defendants and the victim had been operating a lab in Chatsworth, where they extracted THC, the high-inducing chemical found in marijuana, from cannabis plants for at least two months, the Los Angeles district attorney's office said in a statement.
The lab exploded Sept. 21 while four of the men and the victim, Dados Aroutiounov, 62, were inside. Aroutiounov's remains, burned beyond recognition, were found the following day under a pile of debris after investigators received information that someone may have been killed in the fire.
The cannabis allegedly was being turned into a potent concentrate known as hash oil or honey oil that can be used in vape pens, edibles, waxes and other products.
A rise in vaping illnesses nationwide has caused federal investigators to probe the black market for THC products, especially illegal vaping cartridges.
Aram Abgaryan, 30, Vadim Klebanov, 59, Arsen Terejyan, 43, Rafael Mailyan, 32, and Stepan Mailyan, 65, were arrested Tuesday and charged with murder and manufacturing a controlled substance, concentrated cannabis. Authorities also seized $3.2 million and gold bars Tuesday from a storage unit connected to the case.
Each faces 23 years to life in prison. They remain in jail on $2 million bail.
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It was not immediately clear if the men had attorneys who could speak on their behalf.
Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said that by charging the men with murder rather than manslaughter, prosecutors will need to establish they acted with malice and a depraved indifference to human life.
"That is sometimes a very hard hurdle to clear," he said. "Sometimes accidental deaths can show the same kind of depravity as an intentional killing."
But jurors who hear that the men were engaged in criminal activity may be willing to find them guilty of murder, Armour said.
He said prosecutors may run into issues because four of the men were exposing themselves to the same dangers as Aroutiounov, but they may be using the higher charge of murder to encourage plea deals.